If Sunday’s meeting between Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday was a financial battle, Chris Wilder’s side would not stand a chance. But it is precisely this difference between these two squads which makes the 128th Steel City derby such a fascinating encounter. United, a team with something to prove versus Wednesday, a group of expensive names with reputations to protect. Losing to opponents fresh out of the ‘Pub League’, as many of those of a blue and white persuasion indecorously dubbed League One, is surely too much for them to countenance.
Wilder’s preparations for the match have been far from perfect. Injuries to key players, including Billy Sharp and Clayton Donaldson, mean he could travel to Hillsborough with only one recognised centre-forward at his disposal. To make matters worse, the player in question, Ched Evans, has postponed an operation to get his manager out of the cart. Meanwhile, three-and-a-half miles across the city, Wednesday have the luxury of being able to leave Jordan Rhodes, a reported £10m signing from Middlesbrough, on the bench.
Nevertheless, as the countdown to kick-off continues, it is possible to argue humble backgrounds are United’s greatest strength. Seven of the players who featured against Norwich City last weekend either come from non-league backgrounds or have experience of the semi-professional ranks. Wilder, the man at the helm, cut his coaching teeth in Sunday morning competition before moving on to the bright lights of Alfreton. Serving their apprenticeships at places such as Cove Rangers (Paul Coutts), Vauxhall Motors (Mark Duffy) and Halifax Town (Jake Wright) has equipped United’s team with a hunger, an appreciation of values including camaraderie and comradeship, others have found hard to match.
“I’m not saying you have more desire if you come through this way,” one player told me yesterday. “But, when you finally reach this level, you are doubly determined not to go back.”
Highlighting these disparities should not be interpreted as a slight on Wednesday or their manager Carlos Carvahal. They have been created by a combination of good fortune, timing and circumstance. Had United not spent the past six years in the third tier of English football, it could well be a case of roles reversed. But you can bet your bottom dollar Wilder will be using them as motivation when the visitors attempt to strike a blow for sporting romantics, who love a good rags-riches story, this weekend.